The gate to Auschwitz
In the past, whenever I heard the word Auschwitz, it conjured up so many of the atrocities that the Nazis had perpetrated on the European population during the 1930s and 1940s. It was like that one word had the power to hold so many images, and so much hate and indifference. It wasn't merely a single place but an amalgamation of all concentration camps and all horrors faced by the Jews and others at the hands of Nazi Germany. It stood for the depths to which mankind could sink. Now that I have seen it, I realize that while it has come to be an actual, real place, there is good reason it has embodied what it has to me in the past.
We spent over five hours there today. Auschwitz was actually the site of three camps, two of which are still preserved today as a museum and memorial: Auschwitz I, the original main camp, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the larger extermination centre. We visited Birkenau first. The first thing you see is the 'Death Gate,' through which the trains passed on their way to the unloading platform. Farther down the track, well within the compound, is the long ramp upon which thousands coming from the train cars would stand as Dr. Mengele and colleagues performed the 'selection': one line would lead to actual showers while the other would led directly to the gas chambers. Approximately 75% of those getting off the train would be killed immediately. The remaining would be showered, shorn, tattooed, issued camp uniforms and sent to their barracks. Belongings from all those coming into the camp were confiscated, sorted through and organized for transport to an area of the camp called 'Canada,' so called because of the great wealth that could be found there (clothing, fur coats, jewelry, utensils, shoes, food, etc.). For the majority of the barracks, only the foundations remain; however, we were able to visit a few sleeping and lavatory quarters that are being preserved in order to understand the crowded and deplorable conditions under which the inmates lived. The inmates who weren't killed immediately lived on average an additional four months; those few who survived till the end of the war often had luck on their side, a privileged camp job or a unique skill that was of interest to the SS (e.g., could play in the orchestra, were physicians, etc.). Walking through the lines of barracks, now interspersed with thick, green grass, and hearing silence save for the birds calling to one another was surreal. We made our way down the road towards the ruins of the five crematoria (one had been destroyed by a prisoner uprising while the others were blown up by the Germans when they left the camp). Write ups and maps walked us through the process by which people were so systematically executed. The streamlined organization and terrible effectiveness of the procedures are absolutely horrifying; they generally killed 10,000 people a day in Birkenau. Trying to take it all in was impossible and yet, intellectually, we knew it had happened. Two months ago, Ben and I read a book authored by the pathologist inmate, Miklós Nyiszli, entitled Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account. It gave us a lot of background on the killing machine that was Birkenau. It also provided descriptions of what some prisoners would do just to survive a while longer. It didn't seem to take long for the effects of dehumanization to lead to prisoners' instincts of self preservation. We wondered how we would have reacted had we been in that awful situation.
Auschwitz: victims' shoes
The Birkenau camp is very large and it took us two hours to walk around most of the area. It is situated two kilometers from the main camp but, fortunately, the museum provides a free shuttle bus that runs between the camps. There is a sign at the stop that indicates it runs once at the top of every hour. When we hurried to the spot just in time, we found the very full bus departing. However, there were still a number of people left behind so we surmised they would have to send another bus soon. It was a hot day and we, together with the other visitors, were tired, overheated and ready to go to the Aucshwitz I camp, where we could go inside structures and get out of the heat. Therefore, it was important to be able to get on a bus as soon as possible. It seems we all felt the same way, as when it arrived shortly after, we all immediately started jockeying for position, swarming the doors, judiciously allowing the current passengers just enough room to exit so as to prevent anyone from behind cutting in front of us. We all managed to squeeze on and once the bus started moving, I commented to Ben that the short exercise of competing for bus space gave some insight into our question earlier of how we would all react had we been in the camps. It was sobering for us to realize how desperation would likely change any one of us.
The main camp of Auschwitz I was much smaller but, as it had a number of museum displays, took us longer to see. We were greeted by the infamous gate over which hangs a scripted "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("work will make one free"). Here, the inmates' buildings in general seemed a bit more comfortable, although still ghastly. And some barracks had been devoted to human experiments, penal cells and execution preparations. Five barracks had been set up with a permanent exhibition; these housed very simple displays focusing on, respectively, extermination, physical evidence of the crimes committed, the life of the prisoners, conditions in the camps, and the death block. They explained the reasons why and how Jews, Poles, the Roma, and Soviet PoWs were exterminated or imprisoned in the camp. The German army kept a hoard of paper records and, even though they tried to destroy all such evidence when abandoning the camp, samples still remain. There were also numerous empty canisters of the Zyklon B gas shown. But the most real and horrific display was comprised of hundreds of kilograms of victims' hair, interspersed with thousands upon thousands of still intact braids. Liberators found bags and bags of human hair that were waiting to be shipped to the German textile industry for the making of haircloth. It is this display that is the hardest to view, even harder than the tens of thousands of shoes we saw in piles, or the multitude of broken spectacles, or the collection of prosthetics, or the compilation of children's clothing and garments. Each room would offer a new horror, a new way of compelling you to understand the immensity of what had happened here.
Auschwitz-Birkenau: inmates' barracks
Through many of the corridors, we saw row upon row of inmate photographs. These were only of those who had survived the initial selection since the people who went directly to the gas chambers were never formally registered as Auschwitz prisoners. Of the formal 400,000 prisoners, at least half died in the camp, several were transferred to die at other camps, several more died on the end-of-war death marches and about 7,000 were liberated, many to die in subsequent days. These photographs were terribly arresting and I felt I should view each one to give them the respect and remembrance they deserved. It was hard to pull my eyes away and move on.
There is a lot more one could write about the site and still more one could say in general about the Holocaust. And, indeed, much has been written and said. However, we still all need to remember this event and to recognize similar events in the atrocities against people that are being committed today. It's my hope that by seeing this museum today I can be more driven to rise up against injustice, cruelty, and despair when I encounter it in today's world.